Decentralized ID, ZK-proofs are key to safety for refugees — UN agency

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Decentralized identity through zero-knowledge proofs (ZK-proofs) is critical to ensuring the safety of refugees forced to cross borders, says the treasurer of a United Nations agency.

It is currently a mission for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to build an identity infrastructure to ensure refugees can quickly migrate with their identity verified and intact, says Carmen Hett, treasurer of the Division of Financial and Administrative Management for the UNHCR.

One of the well-documented challenges facing refugees is being able to prove who they say they are, as most times, their own government holds the key to verifying their identity.

Cointelegraph editor-in-chief Kristina Cornèr moderating a panel discussion with execs from the UNHCR, World Trade Organization and International Telecommunication Union. Source: Decentral House

“Imagine yourself as a refugee going across borders; not all the laws in every country are the same, so the key is [to have] a system that can ensure the trust that we can guarantee as UNHCR to make sure identity is actually secure and safe for the people at risk,” explained Hett in a Dec. 14 panel discussion moderated by Cointelegraph’s Kristina Cornèr in Geneva, Switzerland.

Hett said implementing ZK-proofs can secure the safety of refugees when crossing borders:

“In the refugee context, identity, data protection, making sure that it is borderless, building trust, making sure we can deploy zero-knowledge proofs, there are a lot of techniques to make this even more secure.”

A refugee who can’t prove their identity could end up being restricted from accessing a bank account, employment opportunities and other benefits and services in the country they migrated to, according to Concordium.

ZK-proofs could serve as a potential solution, argued Hett. ZK-proofs are a cryptographic protocol that allows one party to prove the truth of a statement to another party without sharing any of the statement’s contents.

It is commonly integrated into digital identity solutions to ensure one’s identity can be proven without the verifier or anyone else needing to see original documentation.

The UNHCR treasurer, however, said more effort needs to come from regulators for adoption to increase.

The UNHCR is mandated to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a new country. The agency was created in December 1950, during the aftermath of World War Two, to help millions of Europeans who fled their homes.

The UN agency launched a pilot cash-based intervention project in December 2022 in which it delivered USD Coin (USDC) stablecoin to wallets accessible to Ukrainian refugees who were displaced by the Ukraine-Russia war.

The project enabled Ukrainian refugees to easily access fiat, Hett explained.

Related: Stellar partners with UNHCR to give Ukrainian refugees cash via USDC

Hett praised the speed, accuracy and transparency at which transfers can take place from the UN to those in need all around the world:

“[Because of blockchain] we can actually deliver aid within literally minutes.”

Hett said the UNHCR is also focused on strengthening the financial and digital literacy of the displaced refugees.

“We prepare them for the future to go about their lives cross-border and be able to carry the money with them in safe storage in their wallet, so it is very enticing.”

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